Do you tend to skip meals, or eat lots of fruit and vegetables but little meat and dairy products? In this article we take a look at the factors that can cause underweight and at methods of combating them.
We will concentrate on the following causes of underweight:
Tips to counteract these factors
Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, are more prevalent than one thinks. Many young people, especially teenage girls and young women, are underweight because they have border-line eating disorders.
They usually think that they are eating sufficient food to meet their bodies’ needs for energy and nutrients, but this is not the case.
If you suspect that you may tend towards an eating disorder, please get help fast. Consult a clinical psychologist and a dietician to help you uncover what is driving you to starve your body and to work out a diet that will help you to gain weight without threat.
Lots of smaller, healthy meals and snacks will replace the energy that you have denied yourself and gradually solve the problem.
Some people who either battle to gain weight or suddenly lose a great deal of weight, may be suffering from an overactive thyroid.
Hyperthyroidism is usually also associated with dry skin, irritability, feeling hot and flushed, tremors, palpitations and restlessness.
To check if your thyroid is overactive and contributing to weight loss, you need to have a medical checkup and ask your doctor to do a thyroid function test. If the test indicates that your thyroid is overactive, the doctor will prescribe the necessary treatment.
To compensate for the very large amounts of energy that you use when you suffer from this condition, you should increase your intake of healthy foods at each meal and eat healthy snacks like fresh and dried fruit, fruit juice, wholewheat sandwiches, or crackers, cheese, yoghurt, and nuts.
Depression can cause both over- and underweight.
When some people get depressed they lose their appetite and eat less and less. If you suffer from chronic lack of appetite and suspect that you may be depressed, then you also need to consult a doctor and a clinical psychologist to help you cope with this problem.
You won’t gain weight if you don’t have an appetite and eat sufficient food to supply you daily energy needs. Vitamin and mineral supplements can help with depression and also stimulate your appetite. The B vitamins are particularly useful when it comes to getting your appetite back, so buy a good supplement and take it for at least three months.
Patients suffering from serious, wasting illnesses often lose a great deal of weight and struggle to regain weight when they have recovered.
In such cases the patient should be treated by a clinical dietician who will work out a high-energy diet for the patient taking his/her special food requirements into consideration. Liquid food supplements and delicious milk shakes made with liquidised fruit, whole milk, ice cream, and honey can be used to supplement food intake in patients who are feeling weak and have lost a lot of weight.
Inadequate food intake
If you are underweight and don’t have any medical conditions which could contribute to weight loss, then you should take a good, hard look at how much you are actually eating.
Do you tend to skip meals, or just have a cup of coffee and one slice of toast at breakfast, a single sandwich at lunch and a tiny portion of food at supper?
If so, then you will not gain weight. It is a fact that most healthy people who struggle to gain weight are simply not eating enough food on a daily basis.
You need to make sure that you are eating at least three adequate meals every day and it is a good idea to increase the amount of food you eat at each meal. Remember to select healthy foods, not fat-laden stodge, otherwise you will harm your health.
Unbalanced eating patterns
Some people who are very thin and find it difficult to gain weight, tend to eat an unbalanced diet.
They only eat only grains, fruit and vegetables, avoiding foods derived from animals such as milk, meat, fish and eggs.
The ideal is to eat fruits and vegetables, grains and cereals, milk and dairy products, lean meat, fish and eggs, and some poly- or monounsaturated margarine or oil every day.
If you eat vegan or very strict vegetarian diets which exclude all animal foods, then you may find it difficult to gain weight.
The high fibre and water contents of plant foods reduce their energy content and you have to eat very large quantities before you obtain sufficient energy to provide fuel for your body.
Try modifying your diet to at least include some sources of animal protein like milk, yoghurt, cottage and other cheeses, and eggs, and add 3-4 tablespoons of sunflower, safflower or olive oil to your salads and grains. Eating nuts and dried fruit will also boost energy intake.
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.